17th March 2018
Theresa May – a dodgy dossier moment?
Misinformation has been the stock in trade of the British state and media for decades. From the famous Zinoviev letter of the 1920’s, implying Soviet involvement in the first Labour Government, to the disinformation campaigns of the 1984/85 Miner’s Strike, to the 2003 ‘dodgy dossier’ claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there has been no limit to the extent to which the British public has been consistently misled.
It is not surprising then that many have greeted the current furore about the attempt on the life of British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with some degree of scepticism. There can be little doubt that the Russian state is more than capable of disposing of those deemed traitors. The use of a nerve agent, developed in the former Soviet Union and therefore likely to implicate Russia in an assassination attempt, does not however, seem to be an efficient means of execution.
The fact that Skripal appears to have survived the attempt would appear to underline the point. Also, as an MI6 asset, having shared Russian intelligence of behalf of the UK, Skripal was either not very well protected or not regarded as a likely target, having been traded in a spy swap for UK spooks some years earlier.
The UK government initially held back on blaming the Russian state directly for the attack but from the outset was straining at the leash to do so. Finally, on Wednesday in the House of Commons Theresa May stated that,
“There is no alternative conclusion other than the Russian state was responsible for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter.”
On Monday May had set a 24 hour deadline for the Russians to explain the attack on Skripal and when they failed to do so, the Russian side claiming that they had no idea what had happened, May set about expelling 23 Russian diplomats, freezing Russian assets, cancelling a planned visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and pledged to send no dignitaries or members of the royal family to the World Cup in the summer.
The UK government response, even by its own admission, is based on its assessment that the nerve agent is ‘likely’ to have emanated from Russia, although no concrete evidence as to its origin or method of delivery has yet emerged. The latest UK media speculation suggests that the agent was somehow smuggled into the luggage of Yulia Skripal, in Moscow, the day before she met her father in Salisbury in the UK. Quite how she avoided any contact before reaching the pub or restaurant with her father is not clear.
In contrast to the government response Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called the attack an “appalling act of violence”, has called for the matter to be referred to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague. Corbyn has a long history of opposition to chemical, nuclear and all weapons of mass destruction, so it came as no surprise for him to stress,
“Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war. It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.”
Corbyn’s response was in part informed by the claim made by Theresa May, in the House of Commons on Monday, that one explanation for the attack may have been that the Russian state could have lost control of supplies of the nerve agent. As Corbyn asked May directly,
“If it is possible Russia lost control of a military grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW?”
May’s only response was to go on the offensive and attack Corbyn for not condemning the Russian state outright, even though she had previously raised the possibility of an alternative explanation herself.
May claimed that the government had sought consensus on the issue but to jump to such a quick condemnation of the Russian state, without any concrete evidence was always going to raise issues for Labour. It seems to have been equally calculated to stir up divisions and bring the anti-Corbyn tendency out of the woodwork. That certainly worked with Chuka Umunna, Mike Gapes and Anna Turley all weighing in to criticise Corbyn aide, Seumas Milne, for comments on the situation. Briefing journalists, as the debate went on in the House of Commons, Milne stated,
“I think obviously the government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don’t; however, also there’s a history in relation to WMD and intelligence which is problematic to put it mildly. So I think the right approach is to seek the evidence; to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibited chemical weapons, because this was a chemical weapons attack carried out on British soil. There are procedures that need to be followed in relation to that.”
The Russians have asked for a sample of the nerve agent from Salisbury so that they can test it. The UK has not complied with this request but has said it will send a sample to the OPCW for investigation.
Less reported in the UK media is the debate in the scientific community as to the properties of the alleged nerve agent, known as novichoks, and how easy it is to manufacture. One school of thought suggests that such agents can be easily manufactured using common chemicals in relatively simple pesticide factories. Any such admission would make it difficult to simply point the finger at Russia, as any number of state or non-state agencies could be implicated. This view would certainly not fit with the current political agenda.